How to Build in 2030

Government environmental targets are reinforcing the need to build more sustainably and efficiently in the next decade. A group of construction sector experts discussed the issue.

New legislation and a drive toward a more environmentally friendly built environment will shape the way the construction industry operates in the coming decades.

Governments have set big targets for cutting carbon emissions by 2050, and with construction now responsible for 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions, the industry has to act fast. Projects will have to be more sustainable in how they source and use materials, avoiding almost any waste.

With this in mind, The B1M created a short documentary, “How to Build in 2030,” to spell out the scale of the challenges facing the construction industry.  The B1M, the world’s most subscribed-to video channel for construction, also brought together three industry experts virtually to discuss how the industry can adjust to meet the changes required.

Fred Mills, co-founder and managing director of The B1M, kicked off the innovation and sustainability discussion.

Does the industry need to start thinking about these issues now, or will everything work itself out in time?

Xavier De Kestelier, head of design technology and innovation, Hassell Studio: COVID-19 has shown us change is possible. People are working from home effectively. So big changes around how the industry operates are possible, and with that mindset, we can effect change. The pandemic has shown how we can adapt, and with the need for sustainability and the need to tackle climate change, we can do anything, right? We all have to look at ourselves, whatever job we have, and believe that we can actually make a change.

Sarah Jolliffe, company energy manager, BAM Nuttall: We’ve got the benefit of the science, better data, better monitoring, all of which bring home what’s happening around us. And thanks to the David Attenborough effect, people are seeing what’s out there. They understand what we’re doing to this planet. If we don’t act in the coming decade, we’re all going to find ourselves out of a job and probably out of an existence. It sounds quite alarmist, I know. But we’re not very good at thinking long term.

James Chambers, regional director UKI+, Bluebeam: The pandemic has accelerated our need for working smarter, working better, working cleaner. We have more data now. We know it costs 10% less to build green, that you can operate a building 8% to 10% cheaper over its lifetime. The carbon emission figures are alarming, as is the statistic that between 13% and 15% of materials on-site go unused and go directly to landfill. Being more sustainable, being greener, more aware, more conscious are things that are now not just a nice-to-have. They’re a must-have.

The film outlines many challenges facing the industry over the next 10 years, but which do you think is the most significant?

Xavier De Kestelier: Climate change is the most crucial challenge. We also need to educate the industry about using different materials, or materials that we no longer use so much, like timber. We need to educate ourselves, and we need to educate clients about the benefits of materials like timber, getting everybody around us to make sure we go in the same direction.

Sarah Jolliffe: Efficiency is vital as well. Processes in areas like the heavy stuff, civil infrastructure and so on are painfully slow. By the time these projects come to be built, they are completed in what is effectively a dead technology state. By the time a big project is active, it’s obsolete. We need to be looking at modern methods of construction, modular construction, the speed of the build, robotics and so on.

James Chambers: For me, it’s a combination of sustainability and efficiency. People talk about the need for digitalization, but on average, companies are still spending tens of thousands of pounds per year or per project on printing tens of thousands of sheets of paper. Sustainability and efficiency are tangible things happening right now, in front of us, and they should be impacting everyone now.

The B1M film talks about moving away from conventional materials like steel and concrete to alternatives like timber. Do we need such a shift? Would it really matter if we just stuck with what we’re used to?

James Chambers: I don’t think it’s “we’re moving away from concrete.” I think it’s more moving toward ways of building better, building sustainably and with smarter materials. I love timber, but there are materials advancements in other areas, like more porous concrete to help with absorbing pollution. We can now prove why timber construction or using these better, more advanced materials is going to have a greater ROI on the bottom line and will have a bigger impact on both people’s lives and sustainability. We’ve just got to educate people.

Xavier De Kestelier: It’s also about taking better care of the buildings we already have. Being able to be cleverer about the materials that we put in it, about being able to recycle materials from existing buildings and retrofit them.

Sarah Jolliffe: Educating the industry is fundamental. Some people are reluctant to change, but if we can make a point about communicating to people and really go out of our way to bring this stuff to them, it will help. People can be quite receptive to doing things in a different way if they’re shown that it works, that it’s profitable, frankly. Because for the industry, money is always the elephant in the room. But it isn’t the be-all, end-all. People can be persuaded.

Xavier De Kestelier: We sometimes make a mistake by using old materials and new technologies. I would argue that 3D printing concrete is not great. Concrete is not the best material to print with. We need to look at different types of materials to print with because it’s not ideal. Materials can also be affected by location. Timber won’t always work on schemes in some parts of the world, where other materials work better.

Sarah Jolliffe: It’s about application. In civil infrastructure, a lot of it just sits in the ground, or it’s a bridge. We’re not going to see too many timber bridges to the scale of some of the ones we build. A problem with concrete is volume. With the 3D printing process, you can get rid of a lot of the mass, be much leaner with it. And by doing that, you make it cheaper and more efficient. Elsewhere there are new materials emerging, things like composite polymers, which replace steel. And who knows where graphene is going to take us in 2030? So exciting times, definitely.

The film picks up on the theme of automation—in response to a drive for efficiency and a severe skills gap. The idea of automation worries some people—is there cause for concern?

James Chambers: We need to look outside of our own industry to see where others like aerospace and automotive have adopted robotics, rapid prototyping automation and mass assemblies and so on. But you still need the skills, and you need to be training people in these areas. I don’t think we should be afraid of it. I think we should look beyond our industry and embrace what is going to be again a necessity to deal with the ever-increasing demand on the built environment.

Xavier De Kestelier: Offsite manufacturing will definitely grow. But while you will use more technologies like drones on-site, robotics are trickier. A factory is a controlled environment, while a building site is in constant flux, and robotics don’t cope so well with that. Artificial intelligence can automate certain processes, and it can come up with thousands of layouts for a residential project, but as architects and designers, our task is coming up with the ideas. I hope to have more time to think and do actual design than just drawing.

Sarah Jolliffe: I used to be a bricklayer, and if I go in to do talks about construction in schools, one of my key messages to students is be flexible with yourself. Don’t lock yourself into certain things at that young age. The jobs that you decide now you want to do in five, 10 years’ time will not exist. Automation probably won’t take people’s jobs. Rather, they will get redeployed into doing something more interesting.

James Chambers: Kids are coming out of school digitally ready. The challenges they’re going to be facing aren’t necessarily the challenges we think we’re all going to be facing. Many, many youngsters entering these industries now are already so much more digitally equipped to move into that industry than we were. 

We talk about jobsites being paperless by 2030. What are the benefits of a paperless site, and if it’s better, why aren’t they the norm already?

James Chambers: It goes back to educating those working on-site, the ones that think they’re needing to use a printed set, that are averse to picking up an iPad or a tablet. It’s about breaking the misconception that they can only build up a plan, because that’s all they know how to do. It’s about shifting that perception and educating people that it’s not necessary to have printed plans, because there’s so much more to gain from it. You’ll have better buildings. You’ve got the same access to the same data to help you live with that built asset for the next generation.

Sarah Jolliffe: We’ve had some very strong-willed project managers who have gone absolutely to town with digital. Yet you still have people who struggle just to get an iPad, because the perception is it costs money. So, stop talking about why the iPad costs money and start talking about the savings and efficiencies you’ll gain. There’s still a mindset challenge to overcome, and some of that will be generational. But probably by 2030, it’ll be the norm.

Here’s why construction has an inevitable concrete crisis.